Rocks, Pebbles, Sand, and Tea
A Story About a Cup of Tea (Part III)
July 15, 2022
by Shellen Lubin
Story for Friday Night
All this talk of tea—asking for the tea you really need, keeping it pure so you can taste it, emptying your cup so you can receive it, mixing it with another kind of tea from someone so you can collaborate and take chances and discover new things—puts me to mind of the famous “Jar of Life” story, the one about the Rocks, Pebbles, and Sand.
You know the story I’m talking about? A philosophy professor stands before their class with a large empty jar. They fill the jar with large rocks and ask their students if the jar is full. The students say yes.
The professor then adds small pebbles to the jar and asks, “Is the jar full now?” The students say yes even more firmly, sure now that the jar is full.
The professor then pours sand into the jar and asks again, “Is the jar full now?” The students all assert absolutely yes, even more sure now that the jar is completely full.
The professor then goes on to explain that the jar signifies one’s life. The rocks are equivalent to the most important things to you—family, health, primary relationships. Then they go on to make the assumption that if the pebbles and the sand were lost, the jar would still be full and your life would still have great meaning.
The pebbles, says the professor, represent things that matter somewhat in your life, such as your work, school, your home, friendships, things that may come and go, and are not permanent or essential to your overall
well-being or how you define yourself.
And then the sand (sand that slips through your fingers, sand that is in some ways just fancy dirt), the sand represents the remaining small stuff—the tasks of life, material possessions, pastimes, and hobbies—the little things. These things don’t define you, don’t mean much to your life as a whole, and are likely only done to manage your life, get small tasks accomplished, or literally to pass the time .
The lesson here is supposedly that if you start with putting sand into the jar, you will not have room for rocks or pebbles. And, similarly, if you spend all of your time on the small and insignificant things in your life, you will run out of room for the things that are actually important. So you really should prioritize the truly important things in your life.
But is it really that simple? And is that really what the allegory is conveying?
Couldn’t it also be that when you think you are full, because you have your primary needs met, there is actually so much more that can and should be fit into your life? It could also be saying that there is way more room in your life and in your heart for way more than you think, and that everything has a place if it is in balance and proportion.
And who really decides what are the most important things in your life? The teller of this story almost always puts work in the second group, the pebbles, but what if your work is your mission in the world, what you believe most makes you who you are? Would Mother Theresa consider tending to the ill as a pebble? Would Georgia O'Keeffe have had a better life if she had considered painting a pebble in her jar? And for many of us friendships are as important—or even more important—than family—both those of us who have families and those of us who don’t. For some people their families feel like rocks, weighing them down, whether families of origin or families they created.
What works for one person may not work for someone else priority-wise. And society’s dictates for what should be one’s highest priorities may not work as prescribed for almost anyone. And how do you define the things in your life? Does exercise become part of the rocks group because it’s essential for your health, or part of the sand group because you consider it a task? Different for different people. Same for good food—and by good it could mean healthy or it could mean extra specially elegant and/or delicious.
So first we must find what makes up our life, our jar, what are the big and the little things to each of us, what are the rote tasks and mindless activities, sometimes themselves so essential because the rote tasks make our lives manageable, and the mindless activities allow our mind to wander places it may need to. Like figuring out the answers to all these questions.